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Stress and Lifestyle Management for Women: Physical, Mental and Social Health Balance
By Kimberly Brodie, Ph.D., CHES, ACSM-HFS, Adjunct Faculty in the Master of Public Health Program
Women are uniquely challenged by life’s demands on a daily basis. Whether the task is related to work, family or educational goals, women work hard to meet life’s requirements and as a result, the status of their health often declines. If women encounter struggles to balance these demands, the response of stress can become a daily occurrence. High levels of stress are correlated with self-reported fair to poor levels of health1. Women lacking the ability to manage the stress are likely to suffer greatly from the imposition of stress on the body and mind.
A stressor is any external event (e.g. divorce, death, job change or money issues) that causes a physiological response brought on by an internal or personal assessment.2 Managing stress is critical for maintaining a high quality of life. For women especially, the stress response leads to an increased strain on the heart and blood vessels. Over time, this strain could lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, higher than normal blood sugar levels and a spilling of fat cells into the bloodstream3. Research shows that higher levels of stress can also impact the immune system and cause chronic depression and anxiety.
A Gender Divide: The Body’s Response to Stress
Women have been known to respond to stress differently than men. Women’s stress response has been classified as “tend and befriend” whereas the male response is the more traditional “fight or flight”. Overall, women are more likely to secure the safety of the children and family while looking to social networks for support through the stressful process2. A woman’s natural stress response process implies an increased need for physical, emotional and social support mechanisms. To improve emotional health, individuals feeling the effects of extreme stress should consider a routine of daily meditation, relaxation or quiet time. For example, progressive relaxation practice is a self- guided practice allowing the individual to release physical and emotional tension while focusing on calming thoughts to quiet the mind, emotions and then the body.4
The management of stress is most effective when addressed holistically - on physical, emotional and social levels. Physically, there are several actions women can choose to reduce stress including, regular physical activity (20-30 minutes daily) and healthy eating. Choosing nutrient dense foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, for example kale, can help boost the immune system and improve physical stamina.4 Practicing proper sleep hygiene, including ample rest, also helps restore physical capabilities while supporting mental acuity. Moreover, social support may serve to eliminate the physiological stress response through the tranquilization of the neuroendocrine system. This is especially important for women since they depend more on social support mechanisms in the stress response process. By reducing social demands by learning to say “no” to social commitments also provides women with the opportunity to release themselves from obligations and reduce idle interaction with others.
Stress Awareness to Improve the Public Health of Women
Overall, the successful management of stress for women requires attentiveness to both internal and external factors. Internal factors including proper diet, emotional stability and proper sleep support the body’s ability to properly respond to external factors like relationships or career challenges4. Practicing stress management techniques that focus on physical, emotional and social balance strengthens a woman’s ability to respond to various stressors more effectively and ultimately, sustain a higher level of health.
Concordia University, Nebraska’s online Master of Public Health program will teach you the skills to implement public health policies and improve the overall health of your community. Request information or call 877-497-5848 to speak with an admissions representative.
1American Psychological Association (2010). Stress in America Survey. http://apa.org/topics/stress/index.aspx
2National Women’s Health Resource Center, Inc. (2014) http://www.healthywomen.org/condition/stress
3 American Psychological Association (2014). Stress Effects on the Body. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
4M. Stoppler and W. Sheil (2014). Stress Management Techniques. http://www.medicinenet.com/stress_management_techniques/page4.htm#what_are_some_effective_techniques_to_cope_with_stress
5 S. Baqutavan (2011). Stress and Social Support. Indiana Journal of Psychological Medicine. V 33(4) 29-34. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195151/